Comment: Australia’s relations with China have been tense and troubled for some time and particularly dysfunctional since 2020. That’s why a recent meeting between the foreign minister of the new Australian government, Penny Wong, and the long-standing Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, was significant.

It demonstrated a commitment from both governments to put aside trading barbs and to return to diplomacy and negotiation, and as Wong noted it was “a first step towards stabilising the relationship”.

This is important for New Zealand. Australia is our closest diplomatic partner and treaty ally and China is a significant economic partner and a regional great power. A rift between two New Zealand partners creates many challenges. It is therefore a welcome sign to see them talking again.

Aside from the fact it happened, however, how successful was the meeting and what does it tell us about the challenges of managing relations with China? 

China’s readout of the meeting gives some indication and provides a view into how Beijing sees its bilateral relations with Australia.

Wang Yi stressed the value of getting the relationship back on track for both countries and for regional peace and stability. He reiterated that Australia is a comprehensive strategic partner with close economic relations that benefit people in both countries.

The readout expressed a desire to improve relations which is a positive sign. But it also demonstrated a gulf in perceptions that will be challenging to bridge.

In particular, the readout places the blame for the relationship breakdown singularly on the previous Australian government. Whilst this may seem like a convenient way to create an opportunity for resetting the relationship, it completely ignores the concerns raised by Canberra over the past few years, including those the new government shares.

The readout also implies Australia has gone against the aims of the United Nations, disrespected international law and the norms of international relations, joined attempts to encircle China and exacerbated differences between the two sides.

It presents four new statements from Beijing on how it hopes Canberra will seize this opportunity to improve relations that provide a useful insight into Beijing’s foreign policy framing.

The first is that Australia should view China as a partner and not an opponent. This appears reasonable, especially considering the aggressive rhetoric of the former Morrison government, but it ignores China’s aggressive diplomacy and forces an unhelpful friend or enemy dichotomy on countries whilst ignoring each country’s legitimate security concerns.

The second is that Australia should “seek common ground whilst recognising the existence of differences”. The first part of this often-used Chinese idiom holds true but the second is problematic. Only recognising differences can lead to avoiding the tough and frank exchanges and meaningful negotiation needed for their resolution. This comes dangerously close to an expectation that Australia does not speak out publicly for its interests.

The third is that Australian policy should not be aimed at or controlled by any third party. This is also problematic because Australia has a security alliance with the United States and has security and diplomatic interests in the region, including in the Pacific, as well as common cause with many countries to work to maintain the rules-based international order.

The fourth is that Australia should persist in constructing the foundations for positive public sentiment. This ignores the very real issues that have concerned the Australian people and the democratic role of media reporting freely on China, appearing to suggest it is the role of the Australian government to shape popular opinion toward a more positive view of it.

These views demonstrate the challenge for Australia in managing its relationship with Beijing and unsurprisingly Australia’s response has been cautious. It also demonstrates a worrying trend of Beijing yet again taking the initiative to frame relations forcing Australian statements (and media) to be reactive.

Considering the statement in a New Zealand context shows how Australia and New Zealand share the same challenge to bridge a widening gap with Beijing in perceptions of Chinese foreign policy.

Managing relations with what Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern recently described as a country that has “become more assertive and more willing to challenge international rules and norms” will remain one of New Zealand’s, and Australia’s, most important foreign policy challenges.

Considering all that’s at stake, it’s a challenge worth investing in.

Associate Professor Jason Young is director of the New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre at Te Herenga Waka - Victoria University of Wellington.

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